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Best of Paris

Joanna Van Mulder A Carla Tolemeo-designed chair at the Hôtel Meurice on Rue de Rivoli.

Photo: Joanna Van Mulder

Where to Eat

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK These days, the de rigueur dress code for an evening out is a pair of designer jeans (like the French brand Notify), so it stands to reason that casual restaurants are all the rage. Though they vary in ambience, these meat-and-potatoes places always have quality and authentic charm on the menu. With unadorned wooden tables, naïve painted murals, and a sound track of seagull cries, you might as well be in a simple fish shack in Brittany as at L'Écume St.-Honoré (6 Rue du Marché-St.-Honoré, First Arr.; 33-1/42-61-93-87; dinner for two $55). That's what owner Jacques Godin, who was raised in Normandy, had in mind. Order a dozen oysters (they have endless varieties), served with sliced rye bread and creamy French butter, or try the signature plateau de fruits de mer.

For a delightful lunch on the Rive Gauche, Le Comptoir (9 Carrefour de l'Odéon, Sixth Arr.; 33-1/44-27-07-97; lunch for two $48), run by Claudine and Yves Camdeborde, is unbeatable. This thirties-style bistro (complete with mirrored walls) seats just 20 inside and—in warmer months—another 16 on the sidewalk, and doesn't accept lunch reservations. But take this from a veteran: it's worth the hassle of waiting and not taking non for an answer. Order the grilled tuna, which comes with the crispest vegetables, or opt for succulent souris de gigot (lamb knuckle) served with semolina. Round out your meal with an indulgent cheese plate or double-sized pots de crème au chocolat.

For an affordable alternative to Le Voltaire (27 Quai  Voltaire, Seventh Arr.; 33-1/42-61-17-49; dinner for two $160), which parfumeur Frédéric Malle calls "the most grown-up jet-set bistro in Paris," head next door to the restaurant's café, "Le Petit Voltaire" (lunch for two $60). Aim for a corner table by the door and order the excellent, creamy vegetable soup and fluffy omelettes filled with morels and Swiss cheese.

Penelope Cruz has declared that Ferdi (32 Rue du Mont-Thabor, First Arr.; 33-1/42-60-82-52; lunch for two $75) serves "the best cheeseburger in Paris." The tartare-worthy ground sirloin, cooked medium-rare and topped with a thick layer of cheddar and Cheshire cheese, is available only at lunch, but don't worry if you don't make it till after sunset. In the evenings, the fashion-heavy crowd returns, its attention focused on Ferdi's tapas-style small plates and potent mojitos and margaritas.

Isabelle Adjani and Inès de la Fressange make a beeline for Farnesina (9 Rue Boissy d'Angla s, Eighth Arr.; 33-1/42-66-65-57; lunch for two $100) for excellent Italian food (think risotto with heaps of shaved truffles). The mozzarella di buffala is flown in from Naples every Monday and then ferried to town in a chauffeur-driven car.

HAUTE CUISINE, REINVENTED This city has always had a host of heavyweight restaurants: Taillevent, L'Arpège, L'Ambroisie, Le Grand Vé four. But a new breed of chef is rethinking the genre and has all of Paris talking. Dining at the Hôtel Crillon's Les Ambassadeurs (10 Place de la Concorde, Eighth Arr.; 33-1/44-71-16-16; dinner for two $490) is one of those flawless experiences. First, the 18th-century dining room feels otherworldly with its generous helpings of marble and gilt, flattering candlelight, and exquisitely laid-out silverware. Then there's the discreet service and the lavish array of delicious frothed-up sauces by chef Jean-François Piège. The cold and hot foie gras, served with peach compote or infused with hot peach tisane, is a winter must.

The tiny chocolate-covered ice creams served just before dessert are enough to melt even the most dyed-in-the-wool luxury-phobes.

Its caramel-and-muted gold décor gives Joël Robuchon's La Table (16 Ave. Bugeaud, 16th Arr.; 33-1/56-28-16-16; dinner for two $300) a Zen-like atmosphere. As at L'Atelier, his jam-packed tapas-style restaurant on Rue de Montalembert, portions here are small and ideal for the curious "I want to try everything" foodie. Thankfully, unlike L'Atelier, his newest offering takes reservations. Order the silky gazpacho of tomato, fresh almonds, and croutons topped with basil oil, or the succulent langoustines en papillote.

Making a reservation at Pascal Barbot's Astrance (4 Rue Beethoven, 16th Arr.; 33-1/40-50-84-40; dinner for two $360) needs to be done months in advance; the chef who earned his stripes at L'Arpège is that hot. Barbot takes the simplest ingredients and coaxes out their natural flavors with staggering results. A zucchini-and-feta tart becomes unforgettable, a dish of crab "ravioli" is deconstructed: paper-thin slices of avocado sandwich pristine crabmeat dressed with ginger and almond oil. And who would ever have thought that a combination of sweet clams with guinea hen could be such a triumph?

CLASSIC BISTROS: FIVE NOT TO MISS Retro-seventies red banquettes, brass lamps—what is it about the look of the traditional Paris bistro that makes you want to eat food that's hazardous to your health? This list of favorites covers everything from foie gras to steak frites to croque monsieur. Josephine Chez Dumonet (117 Rue du Cherche-Midi, ­Sixth Arr.; 33-1/45-48-52-40; dinner for two $120) is the place for seared escalope de foie gras cooked with white grapes and served with creamy mashed potatoes; the crispest confit de canard; and delicious desserts, such as the unctuous chocolate mousse and extraordinary Grand Marnier soufflé. The fluorescent lighting is not for the vain, but the food never disappoints.

Don't be deceived by the décor at Le Duc (243 Blvd. Raspail, 14th Arr.; 33-1/43-22-59-59; dinner for two $200), which resembles the interior of a badly lit boat. Start with the delicate tartare of sea bass and salmon, followed by fresh langoustines served with ginger and fennel gratin, and finish with light-as-air île flottante. It's easy to see why this was President Mitterrand's favorite restaurant and why it continues to have a power-broker atmosphere, attracting regulars like French tycoon François Pinault and designer Diane von Furstenberg (a.k.a. Mrs. Barry Diller).

Christian Louboutin raves about the sophisticated cuisine at Petrelle (34 Rue Petrelle, Ninth Arr.; 33-1/42-82-11-02; dinner for two $130), such as ravioli stuffed with crayfish. Perhaps he's also drawn to the charming Victorian furnishings, age-defying light, and that just-stepped-into-a-château ambience.

La Coupe d'Or (330 Rue St.-Honoré, First Arr.; 33-1/42-60-43-26; drinks for two $18), bang opposite Colette, is the place to hang out, eat croque monsieurs made with Poilâne bread, drink café, and watch droves of gazelle-like fashionistas. Make them envious: order a scoop (or two) of the cult-status Berthillon ice cream.

In the Canal St.-Martin area, La Marine (55 Quai de Valmy, 10th Arr.; 33-1/42-39-69-81; dinner for two $75) turns on the charm: attractive turn-of-the-century interiors and a drop-dead gorgeous clientele. Try the red-mullet and baby vegetable mille-feuilles or the hearty, garlic-infused fish stew in white butter sauce.

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